What do critically acclaimed barbacoa tacos, dueling cheesesteaks, and the best soft pretzels in the country all have in common? They’re all made in Philadelphia!
No matter where you’re coming from, moving to Philadelphia for college is a big change. It’s a big, east coast city with a confusing maze of one-way streets, angry drivers, and incredibly confusing weather patterns. But it’s also a food city. Some of the best food in the country is only blocks away from your new dorm and, if you ask me, the easiest way to get to know a new place is through its food. For me, food is personal. It’s made by hand, by people who are devoted to creating not only a meal but an edible reflection of themselves and their community. By indulging in a city’s unique food scene, I get to know a new place in a tactile, sensory-driven way that is far more affecting than walking through a neighborhood or visiting a museum. I feel connected to the people who prepared my food and I hear the story of their lives in each delicious bite.
When I first moved to Philly, I felt completely lost. I grew up in Boston, which is only a few hour drive north, but this new city was dizzying. As I made new friends on campus, I also struggled to come up with something to do that everyone would enjoy, especially since we were still getting to know each other. Food came to the rescue.
I started nearby. Penn is surrounded by restaurants and most of them cater to the lifestyle and budget of college students. Hummus Grill, located on 40th and Walnut, was the first place I ate in Philly. I ordered a chicken platter with rice, hummus, and Israeli salad, and it was divine. I’ve been a frequent customer of Hummus for the past four years, but now my go-to order is the falafel pita sandwich (a steal at only $5.99 and so filling!) Other popular student spots are Greek Lady, for gyros and fries with an optional (but incredible) milkshake, Allegros, for late night pizza, and HipCityVeg, a local vegan fast-food chain with a spinach tofu wrap that will power you through Saturday afternoon study sessions.
But eating on campus can only take you so far. After all, you’ve moved to a brand new city, don’t you want to experience it? Penn’s campus is a wonderful bubble that is protective and comforting but it is, after all, a bubble. I encourage you journey beyond Locust Walk and discover the sights and smells that are waiting for you just over the Schuylkill River.
My list of go-to restaurants in downtown Philadelphia is about as long as my most recent CVS receipt. It goes on and on but here are a few key places (at a reasonable price) that will give you a taste of what the Philadelphia food scene has to offer:
Vic’s Sushi (2035 Sansom)
This is a tiny and magical sushi restaurant with an on-going “3 for $12” special. You can order three sushi rolls for the incredible price of $12. I discovered this place online and my best friend and I go here often. The fish is fresh, the rice is sticky, and the rolls are shockingly filling. Definitely go here if you love sushi on a budget without risking food poisoning.
Green Eggs Cafe (212 S 13th Street)
If you want a brunch to end all brunches, Green Eggs is the place to go. Their towering stack of Red Velvet pancakes or decadent Cookie Dough Stuffed French Toast will send your sweet tooth through the stratosphere. If you’re a savory fan, they have Pastrami Lox Benedict (you heard that right) and a skillet breakfast called The Kitchen Sink featuring three scrambled eggs and every savory topping you could imagine. I admit, the wait to get here on a Sunday morning can be long but it is absolutely worth it. As a bonus, Green Eggs is located in between Philly’s Arts district and Gayborhood, two uniquely Philadelphia neighborhoods that have so much to explore while you wait for your table.
El Vez (121 S 13th Street)
El Vez has everything you could want from a modern Mexican restaurant: freshly made chips, innovative tacos, and a photo booth. I love going to El Vez for celebratory occasions because the cool, nightlife atmosphere paired with the amazing food make for a wonderful night out with friends or family. I highly recommend their guacamole and the crispy mahi tacos with chipotle crema. If that doesn’t make you feel warm during the bitter Philadelphia winter, nothing will!
And don’t forget about your own backyard -- West Philadelphia! West Philly is filled with incredible restaurants and you can easily walk to them from campus. Some of my favorites are Tampopo for a $10 bento box, Manakeesh Cafe for out-of-this-world baklava, and Chili Szechuan for spicy noodles and dumplings.
Whatever you like to eat, Philly has a restaurant -- or food truck -- for you! While some people connect with a city through museums or concerts, I find that food is one of the deepest ways to understand a city and its history. Throughout my four years at Penn, I’ve felt homesick many times. I wanted to get away; I wanted something familiar to comfort me in times of stress. Food can be that comfort. After all, while Penn might not be your home, Philadelphia is home to thousands of people who want to make you a meal and share their story with you. There is a reason why some of our strongest human traditions revolve around food. It is comforting, heart-warming, and it brings people together. If nothing else, it tastes really good and can help you forget about the Econ midterm for a few minutes. If you’re feeling lost, scared, nervous, or just plain hungry, hit up the Philly food scene. Bring some friends and make a day of it. Once you find your favorite place, you’ll feel a little closer to home.